At the CRESC debate on The Big Society on Monday, Karel Williams and Mick Moran analysed 'the big society' as a myopic strategy by certain London elites, to avoid discussing the real pathologies affecting the UK, namely the decline of party political organisation, rampant regional inequality and the fact that Britain's private economy has failed to generate jobs or wealth outside of the South East since Margaret Thatcher came to power. Today, John Harris has a nice article, identifying another myopia:
Every week, in fact, brings another lecture or book about the political uses of neuroscience, or what Twitter is doing to human consciousness – everything, it seems, apart from what's actually most important. The world arguably needs a new Marx, but it keeps creating Malcolm Gladwells, pirouhetting around their flipcharts and ignoring the real problems.
If Nigel Thrift is to be believed, private sector managers have been heading down this latter route for some time. But they are managing teams and organisations, not governing populations; scale surely matters here. And yet, given the horror expressed by many economists and policy experts regarding the total absence of policy evaluation going on under this government (as manifest in NHS reform-for-reform's-sake), and given the cuts in social science funding, it is not inconceivable that rationalist, liberal government-by-numbers has peaked, and is now in decline. There will still be experts offering advice, even when it is not based in evidence or economics, as the continued public sector addiction to consultants demonstrates.
Throw in the economic pressure for academics to start researching bogus sociological concepts, and suddenly we face the prospect of a government that is not so much driving while looking in the rear view mirror, but driving while reading a work of fiction. Is an accident not likely? Against this backdrop, the commitment to measure national wellbeing should be commended for at least having some air of realism and inclusivity about it. But Karel Williams believes that policy elites can continue on this surrealist path indefinitely, so long as they remain safely insulated in their metropolitan bubble.
On this same theme, I've been wondering about the vocation and responsibility of psychologists. To put it crudely: since when did psychology become a paean to the loveliness of the human spirit? What happened to the followers of Stanley Milgram or the Stanford Prison Experiment? Sure, some of those experiments are illegal or considered unethical now. But in case there are any psychologists out there reading this, a warning: your profession has accidentally convinced the entire London policy breakfast seminar circuit that human beings are fundamentally nice, caring, sharing animals, not unlike those friendly chimpanzees, who would love to help the needy and the sick, if only they received the right 'cues' and 'choice architectures' through which to do so. Did you guys all just suddenly stop reading Freud? Is BBC 2 not showing enough Nazi documentaries or something? And have you looked at the state of the world recently?
Social psychology, and its off-shoots of marketing and Human Resources, has long had some complicity with individualist economic culture, providing the cooperative techniques which capitalism depends on but otherwise threatens to undermine. There is, then, a division of labour, in which economists declare that humans are rational and selfish, and psychologists off-set the worst aspects of this by claiming that they are emotional and altruistic. In this sense, the contradiction between the two is necessary, as a way of coping with the self-destructive tendencies of capitalism.
This is now infecting elite policy discourses in new and somewhat troubling ways. "We know now that human beings are not competitive, but co-operative". "We know from experiments on chimpanzees that gift-giving is biologically innate". These are some of the things that are heard in debates that were once dominated by free market economists. References to the brain exacerbate the problem. None of this represents optimism, less still hope. I've never understood it when people stand up at Labour Party meetings and say "what we all share on the left is an optimistic view of human nature". Do we? Who says? Some of us don't even have a view of human nature. Surely the great purpose of socialism is to aleviate deliberate and organised exploitation, not simply to stop believing it is real.
And so neuro- and psychological claims about innate goodness produce yet another layer of insulation between policy elites and what is actually going on in society. The more the evidence piles up to endorse a Nietzschean view of humanity as lustful for power (for example in and around the financial sector), the greater the demand for theories, anecdotes and pop classics that present humans as sociable, charming and eagre to help old ladies cross the road.
I don't for a second believe that this gives a complete picture of academic social psychology today (or even of neuroscience). The ethical and psychological claims of Freud and Nietzsche cannot have simply evaporated from intellectual debate, and nor can empirical interest in obedience, domination, sadism and status obsession have subsided. But there is only one, very jaundiced view of the beings that is currently penetrating policy discourse right now. To counter this, one almost wishes for a proper neo-liberal such as Milton Friedman to return, whose pessimistic view of human nature at least offers some more truthful depiction of reality, albeit as .
The reason this matters, as Adam Curtis's recent series went a small way to explaining, is that it produces a strange form of progressive-conservativism, which suggests that society will fix itself, if only it is relieved of various trappings of modernity and culture. In this crypto-Rousseauian vision, "man is born co-operative, but everywhere he is desparately trying to shaft society and get on X Factor". The question of why there is so much egoism, competitiveness, indifference to others and so on, is never intelligently asked - perhaps because the answers might be sociological and political - and instead we can comfort ourselves that, deep down, we're absolutely fine.
Paradoxically, a psychologist who communicated the dark appeal of winning, beating others, hording wealth, abandoning others and ego valorisation might also be able to start a conversation about the sorts of institutions and civic frameworks necessary to cope with those instincts, only some of which will be markets. This, for example, is part of the contribution of criminology. They needn't even claim in any Dawkins-esque fashion that these habits reflect biologically inate tendencies (I for one am very happy to abandon all claims to innate biology, especially in politics). But they might at least cast some light on the fact that, seemingly uncoerced, human beings alive today appear to operate without much concern for the common good, much of the time.